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Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: September 10, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

‘Lekce Faust’ (literally ‘Lesson Faust’) is Jan Švankmajer’s second feature film. It contains much less animation than his first feature film ‘Něco z Alenky’ (Alice) from 1988 and can be considered his first live action movie.

However, this film is still much connected to his earlier work, mostly through the use of life-sized puppets, which goes all the way back to ‘Don Šajn’ (Don Juan) from 1969, and of advanced clay animation, which Švankmajer first used in ‘Možnosti dialogu’ (Dimensions of Dialogue) in 1982. Moreover, there’s little dialogue in the film, with the first lines only appearing after 15 minutes. Instead, the film relies heavily on stark imagery and exquisite sound design (there’s no musical soundtrack), just like in animation film. The English dub, by the way, is excellent, and there’s no need to find the original Czech version.

Švankmajer retells the story of Faust in his own unique way, with an inner logic that is unique to his brand of surrealism. For this Švankmajer uses texts from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two Faust plays (1808 & 1832), as well as Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus from 1592, enhanced with text traditions from Czech puppet theater productions based on the same legend. Even a part from Charles Gounod’s opera ‘Faust’ from 1859 is used in a scene that features four ballerinas and which is probably the least essential and least successful episode in the entire film.

Importantly, the film stars an unnamed everyman (played by the deadpan Petr Čepek in his last role before his death in 1994), who’s slowly lured into the devil’s clutches. By using the most common protagonist imaginable we’re given the opportunity to live the nightmare the man experiences ourselves. There’s a sense of ‘this could happen to anyone’, with which we enter the bizarre series of events.

The film starts with two characters handing out copies of a map with a red spot but no explanation to passers-by. Our man gets one, too, and has a short look at it, before he discards the piece of paper. Nevertheless, immediately strange omens pile up around him: he watches a doll’s head getting crushed between two doors, a black chicken flees his home apartment, and when he goes eating he finds an egg inside his bread. As soon as he opens the egg, the man seems to be lost, and the next day he goes exploring…

The film mostly takes place indoors, and like in ‘Alice’ there’s a genuinely claustrophobic feel to it, with a total lack of logic with which the different spaces are connected. This of course contributes to the nightmarish atmosphere that stays throughout the feature. Nevertheless, Švankmajer occasionally returns to outdoor scenes, sometimes very abruptly, with staged sets switching to scenes taking place in nature, parks or ruins, and vice versa. But sometimes more naturally, with the man reentering the streets of Prague a couple of times.

Yet our hero never stays out of the clutches of the devils for long, and all too soon his curiosity brings him back to the theater set where he more or less has to play his part. For a long while, the man takes the whole play for a joke. It certainly doesn’t help that the part of the good angel is played by a puppet as well, making the man’s only chance to repent by all means a rather silly occasion. Thus only too late the man realizes that the devil will indeed collect his soul.

As the film progresses, the man transforms more and more into the character of Faust, and he becomes more and more a puppet himself. Indeed, several important scenes, like the signing with the blood, take place in puppet form. While the man becomes a puppet more and more himself, the puppets around him seem to behave more and more freely. First they are only seen operated by anonymous stage hands. But later we watch a devil, who’s summoned by the Jester, walking in and out of the street by himself. Later still, we can clearly see a puppet of a queen breathing, making its stagy death all the more poignant.

Like the man himself, the viewer has a hard time following the surreal course of events, but the film nevertheless progresses slowly but steadily to its logical and macabre conclusion. The film ends with the cycle starting all over again: as the man flees the devil’s place in horror, another one enters. But the man cannot escape the devil’s clutches: if the devil may not be able to take him in his puppet form, he’ll do it in real life, on the streets of Prague…

Despite the dark subject matter, there’s room for some comedy. For example, when the burning wagon rides off stage, it’s followed by a fireman in a cartoon fashion. More comic relief comes from a Jester puppet, who speaks in rhyme, and whose lines clearly come from the puppet theater tradition. In a way the Jester is smarter than his master, being able to tame a devil without losing his soul to it. Scarier, but still amusing are a bum carrying a severed leg, and the two men from the first scene, who return several times, showing their playfully mischievous characters repeatedly, e.g. making the man pay for all their beers, and stealing snacks during intermission.

Animation reoccurs throughout the film, which nevertheless remains essentially a live action movie. For animation lovers highlight is a rather unsettling scene in which the man creates life, which quickly ages and transforms into a gruesome skull. This is done in Švankmajer’s characteristic virtuoso clay animation. A highlight of puppet animation is a short scene in which little devils molest and abuse little angels in order to make Faust sign his soul away.

The Best scene of the whole film, however, features little animation. This is when the man summons Mephistopheles. This scene is full of compelling images, with brooms dusting as if they were alive, drums playing themselves, crossbows appearing from pillars, and a burning wagon circling the summoner. During this scene the scenery changes from indoor to outdoor repeatedly, with the man finding himself in the woods, on top of a mountain and on a snowy plain.

Švankmajer tests the general viewer with his typical way of filming, using extreme close-ups, virtually no dialogue, fair use of puppetry and stiff old fashioned language during the staged parts. But viewers who stay are rewarded with a deeply layered film that will cling into the back of the mind for quite a while after viewing. To me ‘Lekce Faust’ is the best of his feature films, and together with ‘Jabberwocky’ (1971) and ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ it forms the pinnacle of the Czech master’s art.

Watch the trailer for ‘Lekce Faust’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Lekce Faust’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 2, 1934
Stars: Betty Boop
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Red Hot Mamma © Max FleischerIt’s a cold winter night, and to get warm Betty lights a fire.

Soon, however, it gets too hot, and the fire roasts her two chickens. Betty herself soon dreams she’s in hell, dressed only in her nightgown. In a short scene the fires of hell reveal her legs through her nightgown. Later, when the devils watch her perform a sexy dance to a jazzy score, they get hot. But Betty gives them the cold shoulder (literally), which causes them and all hell to freeze completely over.

‘Red Hot Mamma’ is one of the last Betty Boop cartoons to glorify her sexuality, and to have a jazzy score. However, the humor is already much less compelling than from the 1931-1933 cartoons, lacking the weird surrealism of that period. As a result ‘Red Hot Mamma’ is amusing, but far less funny than it might have been, were it produced only a few months earlier…

Watch ‘Red Hot Mamma’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 25
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: She Wronged Him Right
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Ha! Ha! Ha!

‘Betty Boop’s May Party’ is available on the Blu-Ray Betty Boop: The Essential Collection Vol. 2 and on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date:
 November 11, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Hell's Bells © Walt DisneyWith its fourth Silly Symphony, ‘Hells Bells’, the Disney studio returned to the macabre that inspired the series’ very first entry.

Set in hell itself, it starts with a fire, bats and a spider swooping into the camera, and images of the three-headed dog Cerberus and some dragons. The main part however is devoted to a large devil, surrounded by numerous smaller ones playing music and dancing to it.

This section involves endless animation cycles. Luckily, there’s one great shot with a devil casting a huge shadow (looking forward to a similar, if much more elaborate scene in ‘The Goddess of Spring’ (1934). There’s also a great gag involving a crooked devil, and a weird one in which we watch devils milking a dragon-cow(?!). Despite its evil scenery, the whole atmosphere is remarkably merry.

‘Hells Bells’ is most noteworthy for its last part, in which the dance routine makes place for a tiny story, in which the large devil demands a smaller one to offer itself as dog food to Cerberus. The little devil refuses and flees, and finally manages to kick the large one into the fires of hell. Over the coming years, stories like these would overtake the song and dance routines of the Silly Symphonies, finally replacing them altogether.

Watch ‘Hell’s Bells’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 4
To the previous Silly Symphony: Springtime
To the next Silly Symphony: The Merry Dwarfs

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